Since 1 January, businesses exporting seafood and meat to the European Union (EU) have faced substantial new red tape requirements and checks at the border—known as non-tariff barriers—where previously there were none. The ending of the Transition Period following Brexit created significant challenges for all companies trading with the EU; but those exporting live and fresh produce face particular difficulties following the imposition of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks including the need for such exports to be certified with an Export Health Certificate (EHC).
The signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and EU on Christmas Eve 2020 was welcome; but meant that businesses only had a week to familiarise themselves with the new trading environment. Nevertheless, it had been apparent for many months that the end of the Transition Period would bring major changes to the process of exporting seafood and meat to the EU. Although the Government sought to help businesses to prepare, its guidance was not sufficiently timely, targeted or joined-up, and engagement with businesses could have been closer. There was also a lack of testing of the new arrangements, which meant that minor issues, such as the particular colour of ink used to stamp and sign EHCs, created delays at the EU border.
Many of these “teething problems” are now being resolved but the new non-tariff barriers introduced by Brexit continue to hinder businesses, in particular SMEs, exporting seafood and meat to the EU. Without action some businesses will relocate activity to the EU or stop exporting to Europe. To reduce the burden on exporters the Government should:
An EHC must be certified by an Official Veterinarian (OV) or, for seafood, an Environmental Health Officer. Many OVs fit certification around other work and at present the flow of seafood and meat exports is not being generally hindered by the availability of OVs. However, export volumes remain lower than normal and OVs may have been diverted from other vital tasks. The availability of certifying officers should be closely monitored so businesses can readily access them at appropriate costs. Defra should also examine the experience of other countries that provide a full-time public sector certification service and report on its findings within a year.
Since 1 January, the additional requirements on the export of live bivalve molluscs (LBM), such as oysters and clams, from all but the cleanest “Class A” production grounds has severely curtailed exports from England and Wales, where the industry suggests such classification is undertaken more strictly than elsewhere. The classification of bivalve mollusc production grounds in England and Wales should be urgently reviewed so Class A status is fairly granted wherever possible. The confusion about the EU’s requirements on purification of LBM also demonstrated Defra’s failure to properly consult with stakeholders prior to the end of the transition period.
The UK has yet to introduce SPS checks on EU imports. This places British businesses at a competitive disadvantage, creates incentives to relocate factories and jobs to the EU, and increases food safety and biosecurity risks. It also reduces the incentive for the European Commission to negotiate. SPS checks on EU imports of products of animal origin (POAO) should have been introduced on 1 January 2021 as originally planned. The Government must stick to its latest revised timetable of introducing EHCs on 1 October, and checks at the border from 1 January 2022. It should also ensure that sufficient testing of the new arrangements take place. The Government should ensure that a digitised process for certifying EHCs for EU imports is ready no later than 1 January 2022, so that reciprocity can be offered to the European Commission to speed up movements in both directions.
The UK sought an equivalence mechanism for SPS measures to allow reduced levels of checks at the border and simplified certification during the negotiation of the TCA. However, this was not achieved, in part because the Government did not place sufficient priority on it, resulting in the creation of non-tariff barriers. The Government’s willingness to continue to engage with the EU to negotiate such an agreement is welcome. It should adopt a pragmatic stance to achieving it. In the interim beginning the work of the UK-EU SPS Specialised Committee should be a priority to help resolve the issues currently facing seafood and meat exporters.